The Darwin before Darwin: Erasmus Darwin, Visionary Science, and Romantic Poetry
Page, Michael, Papers on Language & Literature
Erasmus Darwin was at the center of the ideas and activities that drove the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century out of which the scientific worldview developed. His friends and fellow members of the Lunar Society make up what Francis Klingender called "a kind of general staff for the industrial revolution" (35). The core group consisted of Darwin, Dr. William Small, Matthew Boulton, John Whitehurst, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, James Keir, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and Thomas Day. In addition, as Desmond King-Hele suggests, although he rarely was in the Birmingham area, Benjamin Franklin can be thought of as a symbolic founding father of the group because of the influence he had as inventor, scientific experimenter, and political radical (Life of Unequalled 80). Subsequent permanent Lunar Society members included Joseph Priestley, Samuel Galton, William Withering, John Baskerville, and William Murdock. Thus, most of the leading minds of the era were connected with the society. According to King-Hele, "the Lunar Society was one of those self-igniting groups whose illuminating ideas stimulate the individual members, and the professional scientists in the Society benefited greatly from the speculations of the others" (Erasmus Darwin 25). Darwin's speculations and diverse observations energized many of the practical industrialists like Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood, and Galton. Darwin and his friends were men with a vision of the future in which change and development inevitably fueled ideas and innovation. (1)
Darwin's scientific thought was vital to this new scientific spirit. Because of the way Darwin translated this new vision for a wider audience in his poems, it is no exaggeration to see him as the prophet for the scientific worldview that came to dominate the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Klingender notes,
The importance of Erasmus Darwin for the intellectual history of the last decade of the eighteenth century rests on his didactic poems. In them he transmitted to educated readers, wherever the English language was understood, that enthusiasm for science and the belief in the perfectibility of human affairs which inspired the members of the Lunar Society. (35)
As we will see, Darwin's poetic panegyrics on his Lunar associates James Brindley and Joseph Priestly, and on the incomparable Franklin, show how Darwin energized the scientific zeitgeist. Furthermore, Darwin's evolutionary theory, as developed in his poetry, begins the scientific debate that dominates the nineteenth century. Roy Porter contends that "Darwin's vision of evolution had potent ideological implications. His writings amount to an early and full vindication of industrial society, rationalized through a social biology" (444). As industrial society developed on into the nineteenth century, the Darwinian paradigm would be revamped by another Darwin (Charles) to justify even more fully the machinations of industrialism. But as Porter further points out, Erasmus's theory was not wholly the dreaded mechanistic version that reduced human beings to mere machines in a biological clockwork world:
indeed, he was concerned to rescue man from the aspersion of being nothing more than a machine. He stressed man's inner energies and drives, both the capacity and the need to learn, the inventiveness and adaptiveness of homo faber, the man who makes himself. Darwin offered a vision of man for the machine age, but not of man the machine. (445)
Nevertheless, in celebrating the accomplishments of his industrial friends, as we shall see, Darwin unwittingly laid the groundwork for the reductionistic views of those who would follow.
Darwin's evolutionary views are, however, broader in scope than those of his grandson's generation, even though they are not as comprehensively articulated, for he possesses not only a keen sense of the biological process, but also a deep sense of cosmic, geological, social, and historical evolutionary processes. Indeed, his poetic speculations anticipate the cosmic visions of many of today's cosmologists. In his bestselling Cosmos, for example, Carl Sagan writes,
The early universe was filled with radiation and a plenum of matter, originally hydrogen and helium, formed from elementary particles in the dense primeval .ireball. There was very little to see, if there had been anyone around to do the seeing. Then little pockets of gas, small nonuniformities, began to grow. Tendrils of vast gossamer gas clouds formed, colonies of great lumbering, slowly spinning things, steadily brightening, each a kind of beast eventually to contain a hundred billion shining points. The largest recognizable structures in the universe had formed. We see them today. We ourselves inhabit some lost corner of one. We call them galaxies. (246)
Compare this passage with Darwin's vision of the evolution of the cosmos from The Economy of Vegetation:
And the mass starts into a million suns; Earths round each sun with each explosions burst, And second planets issue from the first; Bend, as they journey with projectile force, In bright ellipses their reluctant course; Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll, And form, self-balanced, one revolving Whole. --Onward they move amid their bright abode, Space without bound, the bosom of their God! (Canto 1.107-115)
Although the "science" in both passages may be arguably quite different, it is evident that Sagan's prose is fueled by the same visionary temperament that invests Darwin's poetry. With that said, I should make a small disclaimer before proceeding with the analysis: this essay is not an attempt to affirm Darwin's science as "scientific truth," but rather what I hope to show, through an analysis of Darwin's three long poems--The Loves of the Plants, The Economy of Vegetation, and The Temple of Nature--is that it is Darwin's visionary approach to the scientific questions of his day that is his true legacy for the modern world, not only for science, but also for literature.
THE LOVES OF THE PLANTS
The Loves of the Plants was published anonymously in 1789, though it was mostly written between 1782 and 1784. It makes up the second part of the combined volume, The Botanic Garden, perhaps a more familiar title, though The Loves should be considered first when evaluating Darwin's poetic development. In The Loves Darwin tries to elucidate the Linnaean system of sexual reproduction in imaginative terms. Because of the potential scandal of a poem personifying the sexual reproduction of plants (thus suggesting that the physical processes of plants are not unlike those of human beings), Darwin withheld publication of the poem to the later date when the time seemed better suited to its metaphorical method. Of Darwin's three poems, The Loves is most clearly a product of eighteenth-century neo-classical poetics, relying on the characteristic artifice more than do the two later poems written after the French Revolution. Judged solely as the writer of The Loves, Darwin would justifiably be seen as one of the last …
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Publication information: Article title: The Darwin before Darwin: Erasmus Darwin, Visionary Science, and Romantic Poetry. Contributors: Page, Michael - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 41. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2005. Page number: 146. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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